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IU Northwest biology professor makes prairie restoration his personal mission

Thanks to one-man community service project, 11 acres north of Gary campus are slowly returning to their natural state

Photo courtesy of Joe White
Controlled prairie fires are an essential part of the restoration effort.

The undeveloped area just north of the Gary campus’s main parking lot bordering 33rd Avenue and Broadway is not just some wild expanse of land left to its own processes. Fortunately for this delicate young prairie, it happens to be situated at the workplace of a biologist who has adopted it and personally nurtures it as it works to reclaim the natural state that Mother Nature intended for it.

Associate Professor of Biology Spencer Cortwright, Ph.D., is frequently found among the greenery, carefully seeding, pruning and monitoring this developing prairie. Officially, the land is named the Little Calumet River Prairie and Wetlands Nature Preserve, but most folks at IU Northwest know it simply as “Spencer’s Prairie.”

It all started in the late 1990s, when Cortwright noticed workers building a levee to control flooding.

“When I looked at the position of the levee and the land around it, I said to myself, ‘No one is going to be able to do anything with the land near that levee. There’s not enough of it there; it’s damp in some areas and you are not supposed to build near a levee because it is there for flood protection,’ ” he said.

Still, he saw potential in the land, which was then dominated by unwelcome European weeds, and so Cortwright set out to become its caretaker. When he learned that the land was owned by the Gary Parks Department, he sought permission to re-vegetate parts of it.

Originally trained as an amphibian ecologist, Cortwright had grown weary of late, rainy nights chasing frogs and salamanders. He needed a change of scenery and “this plant project fit the bill,” the biologist said.

By the time legal documents had been signed allowing Cortwright to care for 11 acres of the land, non-native species had taken over about 99 percent of the prairie. Cortwright explained that a nature preserve cannot support a robust food web if your plants are mainly European.

Visitors to campus frequently see Cortwright in action where the prairie meets the parking lot. Often, he is pushing a cart along the edge or hefting a backpack filled with herbicide; at such times, he may be collecting and distributing seeds; transplanting more sensitive plants that he has grown or purchased to speed things along; applying herbicide; or cutting down small trees that are trying to take root. Unfortunately, a hefty dose of garbage detail is part of the job, too.

“The long-term goal is to have it be a good representation for what a tall grass prairie looked like,” Cortwright said. “It’s not there yet, but we’ve made good strides.”

In total, Cortwright said there are about 54 acres that deserve attention -- too much for Cortwright and his student assistants to handle, even with the permission of the Parks Department. He estimated that it would take about one half-million dollars to hire a company to handle the remaining acreage. He admitted that he likes that idea.

The prairie also provides students with a lab experience. Cortwright’s zoology class studies the foraging habits of small mammals in the prairie, for instance, and the biology club learns how to conduct a controlled prairie burn.

As Cortwright knows too well, waging a one-man battle with nature is not always easy.

“In 2008, I did a survey and had about 200 (native plants), so we were doing well,” he said. “But then came the flood in September of 2008 and I would guess we lost 50 or more species. . . . I’ve been trying to get back to 250 or so ever since.”

What’s the best strategy to restore native species to a prairie? One way, believe it or not, is to burn it.

The landscape’s slightly injured appearance in early spring is the result of a prairie fire, intentionally set to warm the soil and clear away last year’s dead vegetation to encourage new growth. The practice also controls non-native plant species, fertilizes the soil and controls insects. Animal lovers can rest assured that the small mammals remain safe in their underground burrows, Cortwright said.  

Cortwright explained that controlled prairie fires are an essential part of the natural landscape. Without human intervention, he said, they tend to start by way of a lightning bolt. Native Indians once set prairie fires to get grasses growing early, thus attracting bison to their homeland.

“After a burn, you have higher plant production that you would without a burn,” Cortwright said.

Now that the prairie is well-known and highly visible, Cortwright said that he feels a certain amount of pressure to keep it looking nice.

“That’s the kind of pressure I can live with,” he said.


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Emily Banas
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Erika Rose
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Additional Article Photos

Photo courtesy of Joe White
Spencer Cortwright, Ph.D., second from left, and his team of students prepare for the controlled burn of the prairie in early spring.